Much More Than Language: How the US Denied Survivors of Rape in Conflict Lifesaving Care

Excerpt of Women Under Siege op-ed by GJC Deputy Legal Director Grant Shubin.  

On Wednesday, April 23, 2019, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2467 during the Council’s annual Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. .

After months of German-led negotiations, passage of the Resolution ultimately came down to sexual and reproductive health (SRH)—specifically, whether the U.S. would veto its inclusion in the final text.

The U.S. justified its position by claiming that SRH is a euphemism for abortion services. Not only is this not true—SRH includes, among other things, contraception, safe abortion services, HIV prevention, and prenatal healthcare—but even if it were, abortion services for survivors of sexual violence save lives.

Unsafe abortion causes the deaths of 47,000 people each year and leaves another 5 million with some form of permanent or temporary disability. They may suffer complications, including hemorrhage, infection, perforation of the uterus, and damage to the genital tract or internal organs. In fact, the consequences of denying abortion services have been found to be so severe that it can amount to torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment.

The international community cannot become accustomed or complacent to the Trump administration’s use of domestic politics to hold international rights hostage. Because it is more than just words that are given up last minute on the floor of the Security Council—it’s women’s lives.

Read the Full Op-Ed

When Reporting on Rape Stands in the Way of Justice

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine blog post by GJC Communications Manager Liz Olson.

As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya survivors fled to Bangladesh over the past two years, the abuse they suffered in Burma has made headlines.

Their stories are horrific—recounting brutal episodes of torture, murder and sexual violence, often committed in public and in front of family and community members. In different ways, so are their experiences with the press.

Some Rohingya survivors of sexual violence have reportedly been interviewed as many as 70 times each by media outlets, UN bodies and non-governmental organizations—posing serious challenges to the health and safety of survivors and to future justice efforts.

At first glance, the idea that sexual violence can be over-documented may seem counterintuitive. Don’t we want as much evidence as possible to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes? In practice, however, uncoordinated and overzealous documentation harms both accountability efforts and the well-being of survivors.

The adage that “sex sells” is true in advertising and seems equally true in reporting, even in the coverage of atrocity and human rights abuse. As journalists and advocates cover stories of sexual violence in conflict, we must make sure not to sensationalize or exploit survivors’ suffering in order to make an impact.

Read the Full Post at Ms. Magazine Blog

US Abortion Restrictions Violate Women’s Human Rights

Excerpt of PassBlue op-ed by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan and CHANGE President Serra Sippel. 

Every year, 25 million women across the world are forced to obtain unsafe abortions. The United States, through its foreign policy, is deeply complicit in the violation of these women’s right to life and equality under international law.

International human-rights frameworks guard against these violations and hold the US and other countries accountable. The International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), for instance, details the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed to all people worldwide, including the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to equality. Such rights are not symbolic: they are grounded in the dignity of each human being and protected by international law.

Since 1966, 172 parties — including the US — have signed the ICCPR. It is one of the few human-rights treaties that the US has ratified. But today, the US imposes illegal abortion policies that brazenly violated its obligations under the Covenant and other binding provisions of international law.

Read the Full Op-Ed in PassBlue

Where Can Refugees Turn for Abortions?

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine blog post by GJC Development Director Danielle Stouck.

I first met Fatima and her four young children at a coffee shop in downtown Amman in the summer of 2014. With tears in her eyes and her youngest son asleep in her arms, she recounted the details of her harrowing escape from Syria’s southwestern Daraa province and her experience crossing the border into Jordan.

Not everyone in Fatima’s family escaped safely. Her husband and brother, she explained, were missing and presumed dead after a raid in her village had left her home and community decimated. She was alone, struggling to make ends meet and desperate for help. She and her children were traumatized. And she was pregnant.

Unwanted pregnancy occurs everywhere, but it is especially concerning in crisis settings, where displaced and refugee women are among the most vulnerable of at-risk populations. As a recent Guttmacher Institute report on refugee reproductive rights points out, “Women’s needs do not suddenly stop or diminish during an emergency—in fact, they become greater.”

When Fatima reached out to me in 2014, I was working with a Jordanian non-governmental organization to strengthen protections against sexual and gender-based violence and provide critical sexual and reproductive health services to refugees from Iraq and Syria. Fully funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, our work involved developing strong referral pathways for refugees in need of family planning support, including abortion services.

Thankfully, I was able to connect Fatima with the medical and psychosocial support that she so desperately needed. She was able to safely terminate her pregnancy and was provided with contraceptives and counseling as she worked to rebuild her life in Jordan. But five years later,  I would be barred from providing women like her with the same level of care. Under the Trump administration’s reinstatement and expansion of the dangerous and illegal Global Gag Rule, I would be “gagged”—and women like Fatima would be denied information critical to their health and their futures.

Read the Full Post at Ms. Magazine Blog

How Gender Shaped the Rohingya Genocide

GJC Legal Adviser Elena Sarver published a blog post in Ms. Magazine on how gender shaped the Rohingya genocide.

In August 2017, the Burmese military launched a wave of violence against the Rohingya—burning villages, massacring civilians and subjecting survivors to horrific acts of sexual violence. These attacks occurred after decades of discrimination in the forms of restricting access to healthcare, denying citizenship rights and limiting marriages and the number of children.

Now, Rohingya refugees face their second winter in the refugee camps of Bangladesh as the international community seeks accountability for these atrocities.

Read the Full Article 

Protecting safe abortion in humanitarian settings: overcoming legal and policy barriers

GJC Vice-President, Akila Radhakrishnan, GJC Legal Fellow, Elena Sarver and GJC Staff Attorney, Grant Shubin published an article in Reproductive Health Matters.

Abstract:

Women and girls are increasingly the direct and targeted victims of armed conflict and studies show that they are disproportionately and differentially affected. However, humanitarian laws, policies, and protocols have yet to be meaningfully interpreted and adapted to respond to their specific needs, including to sexual and reproductive health services and rights. In particular, safe abortion services are routinely omitted from sexual and reproductive health services in humanitarian settings for a variety of reasons, including improper deference to national law, the disproportionate influence of restrictive funding policies, and the failure to treat abortion as medical care. However, properly construed, abortion services fall within the purview of the universal and non-derogable protections granted under international humanitarian and human rights law. This commentary considers the protections of international humanitarian law and explains how abortion services fall within a category of protected medical care. It then outlines contemporary challenges affecting the realisation of these rights. Finally, it proposes a unification of current approaches through the use of international humanitarian law to ensure comprehensive care for those affected by armed conflict.

Read Full Article

 

 

GJC Published in Newsweek on Anniversary of Sinjar Massacre

Grant Shubin, a Staff Attorney at GJC, and Pari Ibrahim, the Founder and Executive Director of the Free Yazidi Foundation published an op-ed in Newsweek about the state of Yazidi women on the second anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre.

Click here to read the full article. 

Victory for War Rape Victims

This morning the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted the former Democratic Republic of the Congo vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, for two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape and pillaging.) What is significant about this judgment is that Bemba is the first military commander to be convicted for crimes committed by troops under his command, and it is the first conviction at the ICC for sexual violence.

The ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said, “Today’s outcome is also another concrete expression of my personal commitment and that of my office to apply the full force of the Rome Statute in the fight against sexual violence and gender-based crimes. We will not spare efforts to bring accountability to such heinous crimes in future cases. Where some might want to draw a veil over these crimes, I, as Prosecutor, must and will continue to draw a line under them.”

Listen to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's statement on the case. 

This verdict is a hugely important step in the international community holding perpetrators of war rape accountable.

Click here to read the full judgement. 

NBC Nightly News Interview with Vian Dakhil

On Sunday, NBC Nightly News interviewed Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi woman in the Iraqi Parliament. Over the past year, Dakhil has helped over 1,000 Yazidi women and girls escape from ISIS territory, where they have been routinely captured and enslaved by ISIS militants. Due to a lack of state action to protect the Yazidis from genocidal crimes, individuals such as Dakhil have been forced to act to help defend these vulnerable women.  In 2014, Dakhil made headlines with her impassioned speech to the Iraqi Parliament, where she cried, “My people are being slaughtered…I speak here in the name of humanity.  Save us! Save us!”. Her continued efforts to defend the Yazidis from ISIS atrocities have made her the number one woman on ISIS’s hit list. 

On Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, US Can’t Forget Women Overseas

Forty-three years ago today, the Supreme Court deemed abortion a constitutionally protected right for women in the United States in Roe v. Wade, taking a huge step forward for women’s equality. Since then, anti-choice lawmakers at the federal and state-level have been working concertedly to render this right meaningless by restricting access to abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute recently found that states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions since 1973.  One of the longest-standing restrictions is the Helms Amendments, which has been in place since December 1973 and prevents the use of U.S. foreign aid to pay for abortion services, even in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment.  

Shutting down federal funding for abortion services exacerbates one of the longest-standing barriers to abortion access: the cost. As anti-choice lawmakers have known for the past four decades, if the right to abortion can’t be eliminated, the next best thing is to make abortion access practically impossible.

The Helms Amendment impacts some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world; those raped in war. Through the continued imposition of the Helms Amendment without exceptions, the U.S. is denying abortion access to women enslaved and raped by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, and to girls as young as 12 raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.S. is laudably the world’s largest provider of development and humanitarian aid. Through this aid, the U.S. funds a variety of initiatives around the world, including health care services in conflict zones. But when girls and women present at these U.S. funded health centers for medical care, while they may have access to a wide range of services, safe abortion is not one of them. Insultingly, if these women seek out an unsafe abortion and have medical consequences, they can go to a U.S. funded health care provider for post-abortion care, but only after they have put their own life in danger. Not only is this policy illegal under international law, its consequences are dire and often deadly.

Yesterday, in a receiving line at a town hall in Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked by an activist whether she would “help fix the Helms Amendment” as president, to which she gave a resounding yes.   There has been no stronger advocate of women’s rights and abortion rights in the current presidential campaign than Clinton. Rightly framing abortion as a class and racial issue, she’s drawn attention to the fact that making abortion unaffordable essentially renders the right to it meaningless, in particular for low-income women.  However, Ms. Clinton, as a part of the Obama Administration, had ample opportunity to act on the Helms Amendment but failed to do so.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, the Helms Amendment’s impact of women raped in war was raised with the Obama Administration multiple times, including during the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the United States. However, despite the fact that President Obama can take steps through executive action to limit the impact of the Helms Amendment, he and his Administration have continually failed to take any action—to the detriment of countless women around the world.

Like Roe & the U.S. Constitution, a variety of international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enshrine and protect rights to abortion for women around the world. However, as long as the U.S. remains the world’s largest donor of development and humanitarian aid, abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, such as the Helms Amendment, will continue to impede the ability of women around the world to exercise their right to abortion services.  

Today, as we reflect on the legacy of Roe, and sit on pins and needles as we anticipate the arguments and Supreme Court decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, let us also reflect on the idea that the right to abortion is nothing without the protection of actual access to these services, including through public funding. And that policymakers in Washington D.C. shouldn’t be the reason that women are unable to exercise their rights around the world.

 

Akila Radhakrishnan is the Legal Director at the Global Justice Center. She has published articles in The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, RH Reality Check, Ms. Magazine, the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy and Reproductive Laws for the Twenty-First Century.

The Washington Post Calls U.S. Abortion Ban “Inhumane”

On May 29, 2015 The Washington Post’s editorial board published an article titled “An Inhumane U.S. Policy.” This piece focuses on the harrowing experiences of women and girls around the world living in conflict zones, and emphasizes the reality of rape being used as weapon of war and the great need for President Obama to overturn the Helms amendment.

The Washington Post reports on the conditions of the women and girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The victims described their conditions in captivity, stating that they would often be locked up in houses and raped. Oftentimes, the militants would rape the women and girls with the intention of impregnating them so that Boko Haram’s mission could be sustained.  The Washington Post also mentions a report done by Human Rights Watch on a similar scenario in northern Iraq, in which it was documented that Yzidi women and girls experienced perpetual sexual violence by Islamist militants in the area. It is important to note that sexual violence is also currently being used as a tactic of war in Syria, South Sudan, and other places worldwide.

Due to the Helms Amendment of 1973, these women and girls who are raped and impregnated by Boko Haram and other militant groups are not able to get lifesaving abortions. Many are often left with the limited choices of attempting to bear the child or unsafely trying to abort the child themselves, both of which engender numerous medical and social consequences. The Helms amendment has harsh restrictions on United States foreign aid, and mandates that this aid cannot be used to fund abortions regardless of reason. More than 200 of the women and girls recently rescued by Boko Haram in Nigeria are pregnant; with the Helms Amendment and subsequent abortion ban in place, what can be done to help them?

The answer lies in the overturning of the Helms Amendment, which can be done with an executive order from President Obama. While President Obama has acknowledged that rape is a weapon of war, he has not taken definitive action. As an integral part of Global Justice Center’s “Rape as a Weapon of War” project, we have urged President Obama to sign an executive order that clarifies exceptions to the Helms Amendment when rape, incest, or a life-threatening situation is present.

Overturning the Helms Amendment would mean providing appropriate medical care and lifesaving abortions to the women and girls who are victims of war rape. President Obama must stand up for the rights of women and girls to reduce their hardship and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

See Jen Sorensen’s Great Political Cartoon: “Thanks to This US Law, Boko Haram Rape Victims Can’t Get Abortions”

On May 26, 2015 political cartoonist Jen Sorensen posted a caricature of the United States’ abortion policy in relation to the 600 Nigerian girls who were rescued from Boko Haram, an estimated 214 of whom had been raped and impregnated by the militants.  Sorensen calls the United States’ abortion policy “utterly retrograde” and cites GJC’s work of urging President Obama to end the abortion ban, as it is imperative that “the UN Population Fund can do its job.”

Read the full post here.

Stigma of War Rape in Nigeria

Recently hundreds of girls were rescued from Boko Haram. These military rescues have been widely applauded and measures are being taken to help the women in their healing. Tragically, certain Nigerian communities look upon the survivors of Boko Haram’s abductions with distrust and dislike. The animosity stems from hatred for the terrorist organization and fear of their tactics, but nonetheless, the victims are entirely innocent and deserve to be treated with respect.

Those who managed to escape from the famous Chibok abduction last April have been taunted and ridiculed. It is thought that their time with the organization somehow tainted them as ‘Boko Haram Wives.” Some of these girls, who were only in captivity for a short time, have chosen to leave their homes because the harassment can be so intense.

Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno, created further challenges, when he said “I am seriously worried with the fact that most women tend to hate and abandon children they deliver from rape. Now, the problem is that these children could go to the streets unattended to, they then lack access to food, health care and education. The result is that they could indeed inherit their fathers’ ideology somehow.”

From interviews, it has been ascertained that the survivors of Boko Haram feel deeply shamed. There are numerous organizations working to provide support, critical now, as hundreds of women and children have recently been rescued and need medical and psychological attention.

The one medical service these organizations cannot provide is abortion. Due to the Helms Amendment passed in 1973, which bars any US foreign aid funds from going to an organization that provides abortion services, international aid organizations are hamstrung in their ability to fully help these girls.

Rape as a weapon of war constitutes torture and, in some cases, genocide. As survivors of war rape, these girls are allowed the protections provided to victims of war and torture and deserve comprehensive medical rights, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. The denial and restrictions of these rights puts the United States in direct conflict with the Geneva Conventions.

Even pro-life supporters will admit that there should be an abortion exception for rape. The women and girls who survived Boko Haram are victims of war rape and sexual slavery. Those that returned pregnant are facing additional suffering due to being denied their rights under the Geneva Conventions. Many of the impregnated women are young and malnourished, leading to complications in the pregnancy and further, if these women were to delivery safely, it is likely that their children would be endangered by the same distrust and associations with Boko Haram.

It is more urgent than ever, for the women and girls who are being kidnapped by terrorist groups, that President Obama overturn the Helms Amendment and grant them full access to medical care.

Click here to read the full article.